The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was established in 1913 to fight anti-Semitism, so it was shocking when, earlier this month, the organization came out in defense of the openly Nazi elements operating in Ukraine.
A campaign of disinformation
Andrew Srulevitch, the ADL Director of European Affairs, interviewed Prof. David Fishman, a professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in an article titled, “Why is Putin Calling the Ukrainian Government a Bunch of Nazis?”. The article began by claiming that “Russian propaganda, including rhetoric linking Ukraine and the Nazis, is being used as part of a campaign of disinformation to discredit the democratically elected Ukrainian government.”
After inspecting the article’s content, it is important to understand the context of the preamble. Similar to the United States, the politics of Ukraine operate in a framework of a semi-presidential representative democratic republic and a multi-party system. But this is relatively new, and as recently as 2022, the country was labeled “Partly Free” based on political pluralism, parliamentary elections, and government transparency. Freedom House cited endemic corruption and attacks against journalists, civil society activists, and members of minority groups. Ukraine was categorized as a transitional or hybrid regime and given a Democracy Percentage of 39% out of a possible 100. This has deteriorated even further as President Zelensky invoked martial law to outlaw 11 opposition parties and seized control of the country’s media outlets. Ukraine’s status as a democracy is far from being established.
Prof. Fishman explained that Russian President Vladimir Putin was unfairly focusing on a small group of “ultra-nationalists” in Ukraine.
“This propaganda isn’t new. Russia has for years highlighted the activity of a marginal group of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists as a way of trying to stigmatize all of Ukraine. Yes, some members of these ultra-nationalist groups have used Nazi insignia, made Hitler salutes, and used antisemitic rhetoric. Still, they are politically insignificant and in no way representative of Ukraine.”
When challenged by the reality of a vocal and active Nazi-allied element in Ukrainian society, Prof. Fishman dismissed it as allying with Nazi ideology for “tactical-not-ideological-reasons.” He does admit that there is some truth to the accusation linking Ukraine to Nazism.
Unforgivable under any circumstance
“For Jews, however, not only is allying with the Nazis unforgivable under any circumstance, but historians have documented that Ukrainian nationalists participated together with Germans in the murder of many thousands of Jews in Ukraine.
“We should also not forget that 10 million Ukrainians fought in the Red Army against Nazi Germany, and 1.5 million Ukrainians died in combat,” Prof Fishman stated. “The number of Ukrainians who fought the Nazis dwarfs the number who collaborated with them.”
The professor then states enigmatically, “When Ukrainian nationalists and Jews look at those red and black flags[Nazi], we see two different things.”
Zero tolerance for Nazism
Despite the disclaimer expressing zero tolerance for Nazism and the admission of a substantial link between Ukraine and Nazism, Prof. Fishman gives a free pass to the Ukrainian brand of Nazism.
“There are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, just as there are in the U.S., and in Russia for that matter,” Prof.Fishman concluded. “But they are a very marginal group with no political influence and who don’t attack Jews or Jewish institutions in Ukraine.”
Prof.Fishman concludes with the bold claim, “Putin’s propaganda is so far from the truth that it doesn’t survive the first contact with even a little knowledge.”
In fact, a little knowledge reveals that the connection between Ukraine and Nazism is not baseless propaganda. As the professor admitted, Ukraine played a significant and active role in the Holocaust, and many Ukrainians enthusiastically cooperated with the Nazis. Between 1941 and 1944, more than a million Jews living in the Soviet Union were murdered by Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” extermination policies. Most of them were killed in Ukraine because most pre-WWII Soviet Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement, of which Ukraine was the biggest part. About 100,000 Ukrainians joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis. Volunteers carried out anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions. Though many claims of collaboration have been made, the Ukrainian government has never put a single person on trial.
Long and vicious
The history of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is long and vicious, perhaps due to its large Jewish population. A third of the Jews of Europe previously lived in Ukraine between 1791 and 1917, within the Pale of Settlement. But this made the Jews a visible target and a handy scapegoat. Pogroms have been carried out since the 12th century.
Though the government officially claims that its legacy of anti-Semitism has been reversed, Ukraine has in recent years erected a glut of statues honoring Ukrainian nationalists whose legacies are tainted by their indisputable record as Nazi proxies.
A “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”
Far-right groups have also gained political currency in the past decade, none more chilling than Svoboda (formerly the Social-National Party of Ukraine), whose leader claimed the country was controlled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” and whose deputy used an anti-Semitic slur to describe Ukrainian-born Jewish actor Mila Kunis. According to Foreign Policy, Svoboda has sent several members to Ukraine’s Parliament, including one who called the Holocaust a “bright period” in human history.
This is also apparent in the Azov Battalion, founded by an avowed white supremacist who claimed Ukraine’s national purpose was to rid the country of Jews and other inferior races. Azov is now an official member of the Ukraine National Guard. In 2018, the U.S. Congress stipulated that its aid to Ukraine couldn’t be used “to provide arms, training or other assistance to the Azov Battalion.” Nonetheless, recent reports indicate that Azov may have been funded and trained by the US.
In World War II against the Nazis, losses of the Soviet Union from all related causes were about 27,000,000, both civilian and military, although exact figures are disputed. Russians surely remember Ukrainian complicity and react strongly to the current taint of Nazism in Ukraine.